It’s funny how the likes of Paul Hogan have created the myth of Australia as the most laid back, easy going and relaxed country in the world. So, it must come as a bit of surprise to realise that we have some of the longest working hours among OECD nations.
Many are becoming concerned about this, with independent think-tank The Australia Institute promoting tomorrow (November 22) as ‘Go Home on Time Day’.
Workplace specialists have something to be concerned about: long working hours damage family relationships, impact on mental health, and make for unhappy workers. That won’t improve national productivity.
What’s important here is not just how long we work, or how efficient we are by just ‘being present’, but also the impact of work on our other responsibilities.
Helping SA employees to manage a better work/life balance
Luckily, not many of us are clocking up the 60-hour weeks here, with the average full-time worker in SA recording around 40 hours a week, according to 2016 ABS figures.
But for many people, a work life of 8:30am to 5:30pm (and often much longer when allowing for the commute), for five-plus days a week, still makes life extremely stressful, especially when you add young families, caring responsibilities, sporting commitments, or a general desire to look after your personal health and wellbeing.
In fact, the South Australian Chiefs for Gender Equity ‘listening forums’ reveal our workers rate the availability of flexible work as their number one concern, along with better gender equity in terms of leadership and promotion.
Future trends: normalise flexibility
As a senior manager, I’ve experienced the benefits of flexibility. I get frustrated when I hear others comment that they can’t access flexible options in their places of work.
Business owners and directors should look closely at this issue if we want South Australia to remain agile and to retain our great talent. Offering flexible options will position you as a ‘workplace of choice’ and allow access to a bigger talent pool, with more highly-qualified women applying for senior roles. For professions like ours at WSP in engineering, this is invaluable.
It’s not just a consideration for big business either – for SMEs a competitive advantage is also crucial.
More flexible workplaces will encourage less absenteeism, better engagement, better creativity, more motivation, and less turnover of staff. It also encourages loyalty, which is in short supply these days.
It needs to be gender-neutral
Ultimately, if flexible work is to work well, it needs to be based on an investment in the relationship you have with your employees. It’s about mutual trust.
Flexible work could include job share arrangements, part-time hours, options to work-from-home, or simply variable start and finish times.
All it takes to change is a conversation and acknowledgment that it’s OK to work flexibly (the rewards from this approach eat ‘presenteeism’ for breakfast). Often staff with these options will want to work harder (and longer) if they have choice as to when and how they do it.
But, too often management, sees this ‘letting go of the reins’ as a threat.
A study by management consultancy Bain & Company in 2016 showed only around 38 per cent of females and 28 per cent of males surveyed said they accessed flexible work arrangements. Often, employes didn’t access flexible options because the policy wasn’t promoted in the office, or wasn’t put into action.
Worse still, around 60 per cent of men said they wanted flexible working hours, but there was a distinct lack of support from senior management. The study found men were twice as likely as women to have requests for flexible work hours knocked back.
Part of this is related to gender stereotypes where women ‘should care for children’, but men need to be ‘serious about their careers’. This is oppressive for both sexes.
Try a ‘leaving loudly’ day
It will certainly cost SA businesses in the future if we don’t rethink these outdated views.
For ultimate inspiration, we should look to companies like KPMG who have brought in an ‘all roles flex’ philosophy for everyone, or others like PepsiCo whose CEO is following the ‘Leaders Leaving Loudly’ campaign to set an example to others on the team that work/life balance is valued in the organisation – no matter what gender or position you work in.
So, this year I’d like to challenge our local businesses to go one step further by putting provisions for flexible work options on the agenda of the next management meeting.
Then let’s see South Australia’s senior leaders and business people stepping out to pick the kids up from school, or to attend the annual Christmas assembly. Announce loudly that you’re leaving to do that. And if you’re a man, shout it.
That should get tongues wagging and conversations started about this topic, because we (and you) need the debate. Hopefully we might see a change sooner rather than later toward more progressive working conditions for everyone – and better business success. It will be a win-win for everyone.
Matthew Salisbury is the South Australian regional director of engineering services firm, the WSP Group. He is also a member of the SA Chiefs for Gender Equity group.
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